Day 35 – Seegrotte (and moving day)

Given the cigarette smoke the day before, we decided we had seen enough of Vienna, and checked out to move on to Venice.

Ros had spotted a flyer for an underground lake which was along the way, so we set the GPS and headed there first.

The lake was cool. Called Seegrotte, it was actually an old Gypsum mine, that had flooded. It is now one of the largest underground lakes in Europe. Not to mention a pretty big tourist attraction in this part of the world.

It had been used by the Germans as a secret lab during WWII to develop and build one of the first jet fighter planes, and was even used by Hollywood for the movie “The Three Amigo’s”.

Being inside was like being in one of the underground lairs of a bad guy in a James Bond movie or something. It was pretty cool.

We were part of a tour group, but unfortunately the language was not English. Thankfully the guide recognised us 4 lost Aussies, and gave us a quick update in english before or after the group speal – so we managed to get a fair ideal of what was going on.

The lakes themselves were very nice, and they had lighting which made it very romantic. Of course, you couldn’t be all that romantic on a tour with 30 other tourist (not to mention two children) but is was a buzz and we enjoyed our time.

After the lake, we headed on to Venice. A pretty uneventful day of travel and just looking around and enjoying the magnificent country side.

We agreed to return to Vienna another day, because the scenery and buildings are simply magnificent, but will wait for the anti smoking campaigns to kick in a little more.

Day 33 – Vienna

After Auschwitz, we drove back through the Czech Republic to Austria. This was a bit of a novelty as we had managed to visit 3 countries in a singe day. A big deal for a family of four from Australia.

Soon after crossing the Czech border, we found a McDonalds and camped outside. From the motorhome, we logged into their wifi to update emails (and of course FaceBook). This was the first time we’d camped in a car park, so I spent most of the night waiting for a knock on the door and a directive to move on.

Thankfully, no knock came, but as I was up early anyway, I went across to McDonalds for a coffee and to get catch up on some work before the family got up. I was so pleased to be in Austria. For no other reason then a strong and fast internet connection and G R E A T coffee. Even though it was from McCafe, it was the best coffee I’ve had since coming to Europe.

After breakfast we drove an hour or so to Vienna and found our campground. We checked in, set up, then headed straight out to the city centre.

We had a look around and fell in love with the building and architecture. Its hard to explain, but there was something about this city its layout and the architecture, and just its general  “artiness” that was magnificent.

But as attractive as the city was, we couldn’t stay long. Nearly everyone in town was smoking and the cigarette smoke was killing us. There was a haze over the plazas and malls, and for a family of non-smokers, who live in a pretty smoke free environment, this was like walking through the smoking room at an international airport. It was just horrible.

We found caslte or something and went over for a look.

In front of the castle in the middle of the road, were some exposed working from Roman times. Discovered during road renovation in 1990, they were now made a permanent fixture. Right in the middle of the road/roundabout.

All around Vienna city there were people offering horse and cart rides, and there was a large collection of operators in front of the castle. Unfortunately, the horses must have been “over watered” and there was a steady stream flowing through the street and providing a not so sweet smell.

We walked through the castle gates and found a Military display right in the middle of the grounds. October 26 is a National Day in Austria and every year the military put on a display of all their “toys”. Included were 5 helicopters and even a Eurofighter plan. Not to mention tanks, trucks and other gear. It was a pretty impressive display, made all the more impressive to see this modern war machinery inside such and old place.

We continued walking and found two identical buildings (I think they were formally Palaces). Huge, sandstone building, mirroring each other across a landscaped garden.

After a good look around, we continued along to the Museum Quarter, a mix of modern and old buildings and housing a number of museums and exhibitions.

There was full frontal, male nudity on signs promoting a particular exhibition, including a massive wooden structure out the front of the museum of a guy lying side on, with everything bared. Not the sort of thing you would normally see in Australia, but interesting to see their social standards so different.

Intrigued by the promotion, we went to the exhibit titled “Naked Man” which chronicled male nudity in art for more than 600 years. It was actually pretty cool and very interesting, and not at all pornographic. It was just art, and the human figure.

The kids looked at some of the other art works, but chose not to do the naked man exhibition so sat in the foyer and played on the iPads.

Everyones feet were hurting, and we’d seen about as much art as we were interested in, so we headed home and called it a day.

PS – If you ever get a chance to view the Naked Man exhibit, it really is worth a look.

Day 32 – Auschwitz

We got up and had breakfast, then drove on to Auschwitz.

Ros and I were excited, but also a little hesitant with regard to what we would find. We really wanted to go but at the same time knowing the history of the place didn’t – there was an awful uncomfortableness about the whole idea.

During this time of the year, you have to do a tour with a guide, which wasn’t a concern to us, as we wanted a tour and the story anyway, so we joined an English tour, and headed through the gates of Camp

Camp 1 was the original and smallest of 3 camps, that made up Auschwitz.

We seen the barracks, where people lived, as well as torture chambers and the square where individuals were shot and hung. The stories were horrible. Everything we knew we were getting into, plus more and worse.

A number of the barracks have been turned into exhibitions showing some of the belongings of Jews, found when the Russians entered the camp at the end of WWII. The things we seen included, shoes, suitcases, tooth brushes and combs. It was really quite confronting to see all the personal belongings and possessions of Jews who you knew, were put to death here at the camp.

The most disturbing exhibition was a pile of human hair. 2 tonnes of it in fact.

The Nazi’s had used the hair to make rope and webbing etc. When the Russian’s arrived, they found 7 tonnes of it in storage. This was not all the hair the Nazi’s had collected, just what was left or hadn’t been shipped at the end of the war.

It was estimated the average human has just 200 grams of hair so you can imagine how many people’s hair this was. There in a pile. Right in front of us. It was the most disturbing sight I have ever seen.

We also visited the first gas chamber and heard more stories of starvation, bastardization and torture. The camp doctor (not that he was there for the prisoners), used to do live experiments on the prisoners. His particular field of interest was fertility, and how to sterilize the Jews, but increase the fertility of the Germans.

It was just cruelty of the most unimaginable kind.

We thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into, but the enormity only really hit when we seen first hand the belongings. These were real belongings, owned by real people, their most important possessions in all the world. Just piles and piles of them. It mad me sad. It also made me angry.

After a short break, we were bussed across to Birkenau or the second Camp. It had been made for 100,000 people, roughly the population of Toowoomba, my home town. It had 4 main camps (about 25000 people each), and at one time 5 gas chambers. The train line ran all the way to the gas chamber and towards the end of the war, the Jews were simply shipped in by train, and walked directly into the gas chambers.

The Nazi’s had this charade they played, by first telling the Jews they were being shipped away for a fresh start and a new life; even getting them to pay for the train ticket. They would then pile them into cattle carts on the railway, and ship them directly to Auschwitz (and elsewhere).

When they arrived, they were marched to the gas chambers and told they would be taking a shower to clean up and for disinfection. They even had them write their names on their cases, and when they undressed for the shower, where told to remember the number of the hook they placed their clothes on. This charade was so successful, most happily marched straight to their deaths.

Disturbingly, the Allies knew what was going on here for at least 2 years before the end of the war, yet did nothing directly to stop it. Rightly of wrongly, they believed the best way to deal with Auschwitz and the death camps, was to defeat the Nazi’s, which ultimately they did, but not before, many many millions of human beings were worked, tortured and gassed to death.

At Birkenau there was a group of Israeli students walking through the grounds and doing a tour. Some kind of school excursion or something. As they walked through the grounds, they were waving large Israeli flags.

For me, this stood out as a act of defiance, a kind of we’re still here and your not to Hitler and the Nazi’s. The entire experience, the story, the camp, the belonging and especially the hair, has been one of the most moving things of my life.

As we drove away, lot of discussion around it between the family, as well as some reflection on how anyone could do that, and how an entire nation could support it. It just doesn’t make sense.

NB: I thought long and hard about sharing what we seen at Auschwitz in this blog given the graphic nature of this history. Ultimately I decided to publish my experience to bring light on this terrible set of events in our global history, in an effort to do my small part to ensure this kind of thing never, ever happens again.

Day 31 – Prague

The campground we had found (our second choice, the first “Open One” was in fact closed for the winter when we got there) was practically deserted, and we were the only ones there.

In the morning I had a conference call back to Australia (a 4.30am kick off local time – hard work for a guy on holidays), so rather than disturb the family, I went and sat in the laundry mat with my laptop and headphones. It was freezing, but I got the call done and all was well.

By the time I had finished the call, the family was up and we were getting ready to move. I went and had a (cold) shower, and was packing up the motorhome when Mikeala came calling saying Josh had hurt himself.

When we got back to the motorhome, Josh was standing with his head down, in obvious pain, and blood pouring from above his left eye. He had stood up into a light, smashing the light and cutting himself. Our plans for visiting Prague on hold, we had to find a hospital.

Once again our trusty GPS came to the rescue. We selected hospital in the point of interest, selected the closest and followed blindly turn by turn. When we got to the hospital, we had no idea where to go, and we couldn’t find emergency.

We found a chemist and asked for directions, and they contacted a doctor/surgeon and sent us upstairs. The Doctors Assistant didn’t speak any English but she looked at the cut and agreed he needed some stitches.

The Doctor spoke a little English which was good, and went to work on fixing Josh. I stood beside him while she stitched him up. A nice internal stitch (about 6 or 7 insertions, plus two more normal stitches on the outside for good luck.

I dont mind sharing I felt a little squeamish as they put in the needle into the wound then proceeded to stitch away (reminded me a bit of the old days, sewing potato bags in Victoria).

Everyone was pretty nervous about the situation as we had no idea what the medical services or practitioners in Prague were like or their skills levels. After everything else we seen in the country, we had little positive experience to go on.

But in the end everything was fine. The doctor was quite skilled and did a good job (though there will probably still be a scare). And best off all, total cost, all up, $20.

We’d lost a few hours by the time everything was done (they even sent us for an xray) so we drove into town (the absolute center) on stone roads and small ally ways, and just had a look at the buildings.

Josh had a headache and the day was kind of ruined so we bailed on Prague without really seeing anything, and just headed off to Poland, declaring we would return another day.

Later in the day, we found a shopping center, and since we were all freezing, purchased more jackets (warmer ones) and Mikeala got herself a hot pink pair of jeans as well.

After the cold shower and bad internet, Josh’s accident and everything else, we decided to get a room for the night, and have a nice cooked breakfast the following day. Mikeala jumped up front to navigate. Ros rode in the back with Josh.

It became an ongoing joke then, that once Mikeala takes over navigation duties – its straight to the nearest hotel. (There’s probably a bit a truth in that, but hey, she is her fathers daughter…)

Day 30 – Dresden

We had made the decision early we would just head to Moritzberg castle then on to Prague. There was really nothing other than that in Dresden that we wanted to see.

Ros tried to put the Castle into the GPS, but it couldn’t find it, so we had to go into Dresden proper to get directions.

We were there early so getting around town was easy enough (although they were setting up for a Marathon) and by following the GPS to the tourist information centre, we found Dresden Castle by accident.

Of course, we went in for a look.

It was incredible and amazing. We spent some time walking the walls and gardens and just having a look around. We were all imagining ourselves growing up and living in this castle and hanging out in all the enclaves and gardens.

This was by far the best castle we had visited to date. We still couldn’t read any of the plaques and we didn’t really get the story of the castle or its history, but we really enjoyed the experience just the same.

After an hour or so, the info center was open, so we got directions and pushed on to Moritzburg and Mortizburg Castle – Germany’s oldest castle.

This too was impressive. On an island in the middle of a large lake, it was all freshly painted and renovated. In its day, it was mostly a hunting lodge and retreat so it had no walls or fortifications (although it was built on the middle of an island and did have four towers for protection).

We left Moritzberg, and headed on towards the Czech Republic. It was a beautiful day in Germany, with a clear blue cloudless sky. We went through a tunnel and crossed into the Czech Republic, where it immediately changed into a cold, wet miserable day. The weather change was incredible and something I’ve never seen before.

The difference between Germany and Czech was considerable. Where Germany was modern, and industrialized, and looked and felt like a developed state, the Republic was old and run down, and very much every bit the “Old Communist Russia” I grew up with.

The trains were old, the cars were old, the weather was grey, the difference between the two countries was so stark – even though we were less then 20k’s from the border.

We went to Terrizin – which was a Ghetto Town and Prisoner camp under the Nazi regime. We did a couple of laps of town, then visited the “Small Fort”.

A Fort built in the mid 1500’s which in itself was very impressive, was turned into a concentration camp by the Nazi during WWII. We did a tour and learned about its history under Nazi Germany. The Small Fort was a particularly harsh place and was considered one of the worst places to be posted.

Whilst it was not an “Extermination Camp”, the occupants (prisoners) were constantly tortured and bastardised. Most simply died of starvation, exhaustion and other disease. The guards there were particularly tough, to the point they executed 52 people 3 days after the war was done.

After the fort, we continued on to Prague. Ros had picked out a nice “Open All Year” Camp ground which when we arrived was closed. We found another and checked in. We’re the only ones in the entire park.

On the trip from Terrizin, we had had great discussion around the Nazi’s, WWII and Extermination Camps and we decided to head to Auschwitz. We check our plans, and realised we are running out of days (even for what we had originally planned, let alone adding Poland), so we cut a few locations, and added Auschwitz.

Day 29 – Moving Day

We checked out to the camp ground and headed into Potsdam, There were a few places we wanted to visit, but we couldn’t find a car park big enough for our motorhome, or a tourist information center, so we gave up and headed to Dresden instead.

None of us wanted a repeat of getting to and our first day in Berlin.

Since we were on the Autobahn, and couldn’t read any of the road signs anyway, it was a most uneventful day, with no sight seeing. I was a lot happier, and even took to referring to the motorhome as my Porsche, but was still frustrated to be only doing a little over 100km’s / hr

We arrived Dresden with plenty of day light and found our camping ground. The campground was open but reception was closed, so we picked a site and had a kip.

We went back and checked in once they opened and then headed into town for dinner.

Along the way we found another large supermarket, so went in to restock the groceries.

The kids decided they would like to juggle (one of the activities at the Mad Museum the day before) so we grabbed some rice and balloon. More McDonalds for dinner and after dinner we created some juggling balls.

Ros and Josh got a head start on Mikeala and I, but we did seem to be catching them, when I managed to spill a whole cup of rice over the floor. In the end we finished up with 4 balls each (the ones Skinny and I made were bigger of course).

Berlin Wrap up

I’m in love with this city. I was really worried that without working out what we were doing, I wouldn’t enjoy the experience. I had heard this was one of the great cities, so I wanted to give it every opportunity.

Once we knew what we were doing, it was really easy to get around – but the key was to work it out in advance.

Everyone speaks “a little english”, in that, those 3 words are about the only english they know.

85% of Berlin was destroyed in the war, and they have done a magnificent job of rebuilding. Real effort has been made to rebuild the building in their former style, with lots of sandstone and sculpture on most. It also has an amazing touch of modernism. I was amazed.

This process has created a very clean and modern looking city, with the detailed architecture of years gone by (imagine Sydney banking districts, but with all new Sandstone). Its very impressive and now rates as one of my favorite cities in the world.

Food was incredible, in fact, I think I put on weight. No, I DID PUT ON WEIGHT

One of the most striking things about Germany (or this area of Germany at least) is the amount of renewable energy being created. Nearly every hill top has a cluster of wind turbines, and we seen several Solar Panel plants as well. And every other truck we passed on the highway was carrying parts for more wind turbines. If I had a coal mine selling into Germany, I’d be a little concerned about the future.

Business opportunities – no idea. I couldn’t speak with anyone to have the conversation. I’m not sure I even want to do business in Berlin (or Germany for that matter), as I simply enjoyed being there as a tourist, and thats the way I’d like to keep it for now.

One thing for sure, their economy is strong, infrastructure is excellent, and if you wanted to do business there or explore opportunities, I’m sure there would be plenty, and it would be relatively easy.

I love this city and look forward to coming back. Next time it will be for a couple of weeks, with a solid plan. No more making it up on the run, when we cant speak the language or read the signs.

Day 28 – Berlin (with a plan)

With a clear plan we headed off informed and under control.

We’d mastered the train and tram lines and we had 4 things scheduled for the day. We even knew where they where and how we were getting from one to to the other.

First up we went to the Mad Museum – an interactive science museum of some sort. The kids had a ball and once again they got to run, and climb and play and blow of steam. They didn’t understand much of what was going on, as it was all in German, but they did get a bit of a gist of it, and even made a box from a sheet of paper.

After the Mad Museum, we headed to the Brandenburg Gate. WOW. It was really impressive, this great big structure of columns and statues, originally set up as a point to collect tariffs on goods entering and exiting the city of Berlin. The entire gate was almost destroyed during WWII, and has been restored to its former beauty.

The gate itself, along with the other buildings (mostly Embassy’s now) and the fountains were impressive.